Sunil Manghani on the ‘Role’ of Umberto Eco

logo95x95The ‘Role’ of Umberto Eco

by Sunil Manghani

Screenshot from @richardsennett’s Twitter feed, the day after Umberto Eco’s death.



Following his death on 19 February 2016, at the age of 84, the Italian novelist and semiotician, Umberto Eco, could inevitably be ‘found’ trending on social media. This fact itself echoes one of the key ideas attributed to the writer of the ‘open work’ – the idea that literary texts are fields (or networks) of meaning. In many respects the World Wide Web exhibits ‘unlimited semiosis’: Eco’s notion of dynamic fields of signs and significations. Drawing on C.S. Peirce’s consideration of ‘habit’, Eco describes the sign as emotional and energetic:


A sign can produce an emotional and an energetic interpretant. If we consider a musical piece, the emotional interpretant is our normal reaction to the charming power of music, but this emotional reaction may elicit a sort of muscular or mental effort. This kind of response is the energetic interpretant. But an energetic response does not need to be interpreted; rather, it produces (I guess, by further repetitions) a change of habit. This means that, after having received a series of signs and having variously interpreted them, our way of acting within the world is either transitorily or permanently changed. (Eco, 1979: 194).


While the ‘energetic interpretant’ is described here in relation to music (and was written in the late 1970s), it is perhaps pertinent to transpose the idea to reflect upon our contemporary experience of social media. In line with Jodi Dean’s (2010) account, which offers a psychoanalytic reading of the compulsive, and all too often empty experience of being online, the use of the Internet can certainly be viewed as having changed habits. With social media in particular, the need to post, like, and share is arguably less a cognitive, interpretive undertaking than more simply an energetic, muscular response.


However, throughout most of his career, Eco’s account of mass media is generally more optimistic. Having worked himself as a cultural producer (in television and publishing), he was drawn to the democratic potential of communications and indeed over the 1970s was increasingly concerned with reception over production. In a short report, ‘Towards the Semiotic Inquiry into the Television Message’ (originally published in Italian in 1965, and translated into English in 1972), Eco places his focus on ‘aberrant decoding’, to describe how viewers can interpret messages in ways that the sender does not necessarily intend or even desire. Such an account of course becomes the mainstay of much of the emerging cultural and media studies. Only a couple of years later, Eco provides a sharper political account with his paper ‘Towards a Semiological Guerrilla Warfare’ (in Eco, 1986: 135-44). Here Eco argues that power no longer lies with those who control tanks (the repressive state apparatus as Althusser would describe it), but with those who control communications. In advocating a democratic ‘counter-power’ Eco describes a form of ‘guerrilla warfare’ that is not about controlling the source or the channel of communications, but seeks to intervene at the point of reception. We might think, today, social media can perform something akin to what Eco was hoping for, and indeed there are many examples that could be cited (not least the scenes that emerged during the Arab Spring of 2011). Yet, interestingly, as recent as 2015 for a keynote speech in Turin , Eco (2015) lambasts social media as giving rise to a ‘legion of idiots’. During this talk, Eco offers an observation that while  television had once promoted the ‘village idiot’ as a means of allowing the viewer to feel superior, the ‘tragedy’ of the Internet is that it has promoted the village idiot as a ‘bearer of truth’. He even goes on to suggest that there is still a future for print media and the newspaper. It is hard to take this account as a serious statement on contemporary media. It is not necessarily particularly well-informed nor carefully thought through. However it is a useful reminder of the serious position he sought to take up within cultural production. Having ridden the wave of both structuralist and later poststructuralist/postmodern thinking, from the 1960s onwards, we might suggest Eco’s work does not evolve greatly after the 1980s, but nonetheless it remains an important body of work that triangulates a critical understanding of semiotics (and communications), history and philosophy, and cultural interpretation.


Following his death, the process inevitably begins – explicitly or otherwise – to evaluate what role, or roles, we attributed to this writer with respect to the broader academic and critical contexts in which he worked. Crucially, it is important to remember him not just as a reader or critic, but also as producer. Alongside his academic post as Professor of Semiology at Bologna University, Eco worked for many years in publishing and in television, as well as being of course a celebrated novelist. Indeed, his undisputed ‘role’ is surely that of postmodern novelist, a career that took off only at the age of 48, with the publication of the bestselling novel The Name of the Rose (more of which below). As one way of understanding his navigation of these different modes and responsibility, it is worth drawing attention to a short statement he makes about the status and methods of the avant-garde (NB. Eco was associated with various radical art groups in Italy from the 1960s). While sympathetic to the avant-garde artist, who enters into a language at the same time to reveal its alienation, Eco as much sides with the anthropologist, who seeks out descriptions of the world. He explains his position as follows:


To understand the world, avant-garde art delves into it and assumes its critical condition from within, adopting, to describe it, the same alienated language in which it expresses itself. But by giving this language a descriptive function and laying it bare as a narrative form, avant-garde art also strips it of its alienating aspects and allows us to demystify it. (Eco, 1989: 150).


This entry perhaps provides a key to all of his work and efforts to communicate at a critical level. His most memorable work is articulated through a narrative form, and more generally his pragmatism allowed readers far beyond academia to engage in his complex, and often witty brand of critical thinking.





The day after Eco’s death, sociologist Richard Sennett shared via Twitter a photograph of himself, Susan Sontag and Umberto Eco sitting ‘listening to a talk by Roland Barthes’. In truth they do not look particularly engaged, but that perhaps is only in keeping with how Barthes himself might have felt. In his autobiography, Barthes includes two photographs of himself at public events of this nature. One of the captions reads ‘Distress: lecturing’, while the other: ‘Boredom: a panel discussion’. The photograph circulated by Sennett is intriguing . The lens has intruded somewhat upon an intimate scene in which three notable scholars are each seemingly, and independently, pensive. Umberto Eco is more animated. He has a pipe in his mouth and appears to be making a note upon his paper, or at least holding something between finger and thumb; and his shoulders are turned slightly, as if making a little space for himself to think – perhaps even to think of something outside of what we imagine is being spoken. Barthes, importantly, is not in the photograph. Instead, going only by Sennett’s caption, and like the opening of Camera Lucida, we are drawn to the idea that we are looking at the eyes that looked at Roland Barthes. However, there is something else: Barthes enigmatic position in this photograph and Eco’s central placement in the actual image sets up an intriguing thought, an effect of their mirroring: It is very rare to find Barthes and Eco written about together. Their writings run parallel in many respects, yet when we read of semiotics and/or of their specific work, it tends to be either/or. We tend not to reflect upon their work as a collective endeavor, but rather we choose to cite one over the other.


Being slightly older, and having published foundational texts, such as Mythologies in 1957 and The Eléments de Sémiologie in 1964, Roland Barthes is generally taken as the key architect for semiotics (particularly its application to a wide array of cultural ‘texts’), yet Barthes and Eco drew upon many of the same interests and critical sources (such as Saussure, Lévi-Strauss, and Roman Jakobson). Also, both charted a similar trajectory from structuralism through to post-structuralism. In fact, Eco’s original publication of Opera aperta [The Open Work] available as early as 1962, which places the focus on the reader, prefigures Barthes’ own proper turn towards the post-structural. However, Eco is more eclectic in his sources, and interestingly draws both on Saussure and Peirce in defining his own account of semiotics. We might now question whether or not Eco genuinely leaves behind a workable theory of semiotics. Perhaps we will regard him more a great synthesizer of the available writings, and given his status as novelist and essayist, we might suggest he offered more a way of illustrating the key tenets of semiotics. Yet, equally, in returning to Barthes’ account of semiotics – and particularly, for example, the long essay at the close of Mythologies, which did so much to define an approach – we have to question whether or not this truly offered a theory of semiotics for general application. What marks out both Barthes and Eco as semiologists is arguably their signature writing and critical wit. It is worth pointing out Barthes (2011) himself seemed to suggest of writing a novel, or at least writing novelistically, at the end of his life. Both Barthes and Eco are writers first and foremost; both possessing skills which are not easy to unpack and make applicable for others. With the passing of them both we lose a part of semiotics itself.


Nonetheless, Eco offered a more pragmatic account of semiotics. In Barthes’ (1977) ‘From Work to Text’, for example, he provides an important post-structural statement, yet this retains (and remains within) a certain abstract account of the Text. Like McCavity, the mystery cat, the Text for Barthes remains best understood through suggestion than actual deed. Eco, however, focuses upon more concrete interpretive accounts of the sign. It is important to note, his account of semiosis is that it is not limitless. It can start and stop, like the deadlinks and unliked posts of social media. Thus, Eco defines semiosis as a dynamic process, but not an unending one. Signs, which underlie the flow of semiosis are not entirely free to flow, and crucially must be interpreted, rather than simply recognized. ‘A sign’, writes Eco, ‘ is not only something which stands for something else; it is also something that can and must be interpreted’ (1976: 46). His account is further explained through his use of the opposition between ‘dictionary’ and encyclopedia’, which he develops in A Theory of Semiotics (1976). The sign is not to be understood as simply correspondence (as a dictionary definition), but as framed and contextual. His theory of the sign, then, takes on the encyclopedic ‘frame’, through which he argues ‘we postulate a semantic description in terms of structure of the code constructed in such a way as to enable the understanding of texts; at the same time we postulate a theory of the text which includes (through the notion of encyclopedia or thesaurus and that of frame) rather than excludes the results of an enlarged componential analysis’ (Eco in Caesar, 1999: 113-114). The encyclopedic metaphor can equally apply to Barthes’ account of the open text (indeed he refers to the Text as a form of ‘network’), but otherwise, against references to Text (with a capital ‘T’) and notions of pleasure and jouisance, Eco’s explanations seem more grounded, more concrete.


Eco’s pragmatism is noticeable again in how he describes our ability to ‘enter into’ the Text. In The Open Work (1989), he refers to three kinds of openness. Firstly a ‘work in movement’, which equates to a modernist understanding of the artwork, whereby the reader (or performer) is required to complete a work composed in a deliberately non-definitive state. Eco’s explicit reference here is Stockhausen’s Klavierstück XI, which is notated simply as collection of notes on a large sheet of paper, from which performers must choose for themselves. Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings of 1968 might suggest another good example. In this case guidelines or simple diagrams were provided for someone else to execute for the display of the work. Secondly, however, Eco is interested in a wider definition of openness, here considering works that may be organically complete, but which nonetheless are open to a ‘continuous generation of internal relations which the addressee must uncover and select in his act of perceiving the totality of in coming stimuli’ (Eco, 1989: 21). The work of James Joyce (an author Eco greatly admired) is a key example of such openness of ‘internal relations’, and in many respects directly informs Eco’s own writing of fiction. Finally, in addition to the internal logics of a text, Eco considers openness in a very general sense: ‘every work of art, even though it is produced by following an explicit or implicit poetics of necessity, is effectively open to a virtually unlimited range of possible readings’ (21). It is clear, in each case, Eco’s concern with openness leads us to understand the importance of the ‘role of the reader’. While now a notion we readily take for granted, it is worth noting that Eco’s The Open Work (and later The Role of the Reader) was one of the first accounts to properly advocate for the active role of the interpreter of a text. It is this, perhaps more than anything, that he is remembered (and cited) for, at least within critical writing. Indeed, we might say the role of Eco today is as synecdoche for the theory of the active audience. Although, of course, if one types his name into an Internet search engine, it is evident he is more readily associated with his output of novels – which in themselves are formulated around the concept of the open work.



A Rose is Rose is Rose…



A further curio of social media circulating after Eco’s death was on Facebook. A one-minute film clip shows Eco slowly walking through his library at home. The sequence is an excerpt from a filmed interview with Eco, on the subject of memory. Described as a conversation in three parts, the film was directed by Davide Ferrario in 2015. For most people the space of the library we see in this clip will seem labyrinth-like. It is hard to imagine it is merely a private, home library. However, this workspace immediately makes sense regards Eco’s richly layered, hermeneutic methods. His erudition was impressive, and even more so that this came out most dramatically with this best-selling novels. His first, and most famous novel, The Name of the Rose, was published in 1980. Described as a medieval whodunit, with its main character a Sherlock Holmes-style monk, the book brings together a very readable plot alongside dense, arcane historical knowledge. It was meant to be a short story, following the invitation of a publisher to contribute to a book of short thrillers by prominent Italians who had never previously written fiction. In the end it became a 500-page novel that flattered the average reader’s intelligence, was translated into 30 languages, and sold more than 10m copies worldwide.


A few years after the English translation of The Name of the Rose, in 1983, somewhat controversially, it was made into a film by Jean-Jacques Annaud. A prior expression of interest for the screen rights was made, but turned down, for what would have been an independently produced film with designs on re-rendering the book’s intertextuality explicitly for the medium of film. Annaud’s film, by contrast, had a more commercial purview, not least with the casting of Sean Connery as Eco’s monk-detective, William of Baskerville. Given Eco’s well-known essay on the structural analysis of Ian Fleming’s novels, perhaps he was intrigued by this casting, but the outcome was not good for him. Ian Thompson, in his obiturary for The Guardian, explains as follows:


…the success of The Name of the Rose weighed heavily on Eco. When the French director Jean-Jacques Annaud released his film of the novel in 1986, Eco refused to speak to the newspapers about it. Each night when he returned to his flat in Milan he said he could ‘barely open the door’ for the accumulation of interview requests. In private, Eco judged Annaud’s film a travesty of his novel, and found the monks (apart from the one played by Connery) ‘too grotesque-looking’. Yet Eco approved of Annaud’s Piranesi-like sets, which he concurred were ‘marvellous’. […] In late 1986, when I visited Eco at Bologna University […] he appeared unsettled, and confessed that he felt ‘trapped’ by his fame.


Nonetheless, Eco’s first novel gave rise to an appetite for more such writing. His postmodern, intertextual style is pushed further in his second novel Foucault’s Pendulum (1988), a thriller in which three editors at a Milan-based publishing house seek to link together every conspiracy theory in history. Again, Eco’s classical education provides the lens through which different historical layers are brought into play, which in this case alludes to modern-day political parallels.


The library as labyrinth, and in turn as a model of the Text, is a persistent theme in Eco’s work, or at least underscores his modus operandi. In The Name of the Rose the idea is explicitly referenced when William of Baskerville’ apprentice, Adso, gets lost in the library at the heart of the monastery in which the novel is set. Adso ties a thread from his clothes to a room in the library and allows the garment to unravel to provide a trail of where he has been, which ultimately allows him to escape its maze. While this may seem a slightly clumsy or too literal illustration of the Text, it is a very good example of how Eco brings imagery and narrative to bear on theoretical (and often complex) ideas. It is also a neat illustration of his own hermeneutic technique, which insists – as noted above – upon the sign as being interpreted, threaded together with other signs. It is a principle that concerns all of his work. In his ‘Forward’ to A Theory of Semiotics (1976), written in English, Eco explains how the text moved through various versions, and was early on composed in different languages. The English version was meant to be a translation of an Italian publication from 1971, but ‘after two unsatisfactory attempts at translation and many unsuccessful revisions,’ he notes, the decision was made to ‘give up and to re-write the book directly in English’. The result was a whole new book: ‘To re-write in another language means to re-think: and the result of this truly semiotic experience … is that this book no longer has anything to do with La struttura assente – so that I have now retranslated it into Italian as a brand-new work (Trattato di semiotica generale)’ (Eco, 1976, vii-vii).


The passing of Umberto Eco is perhaps again a reminder of a generational shift, in which a certain education, scholarly practice and positioning of the critical public intellectual is on the wane. Certainly it is unlikely we will see a figure similar to Eco, and indeed one who is allowed to publish such lengthy and arcane novels. In looking at the Theory, Culture & Society archive, he is cited in a number of articles spanning from the mid-1980s to the present, and which notably relate to a huge diversity of topics, including articles on Friedrich Kittler, informational society, superconductivity, socioerotic life, postmodern tourism, television advertising, the anti-aesthetics of pornography, copyright, and Peter Greenaway’s Encyclopaedism. In an interview article, the cultural studies theorist David Morley reflects on the key influences for theory of the ‘active audience’ within British Cultural Studies. While Barthes was certainly influential (in the early stages), he notes, Umberto Eco was more so (Morley in Jin, 2011: 136). And in ‘Electric Light and Electricity’, Sean Cubitt draws upon Eco’s critique of McLuhan, whom Eco suggests failed to properly account for what is meant by medium in relation to light. The fecundity of themes and influences is symptomatic of Eco as a postmodern thinker and writer. Perhaps that leaves him without a clearly delineated corpus, and perhaps the postmodern condition itself will mean we only end up cherry-picking from his work. It is a problem that he brilliantly cast in his account of the ‘postmodern reply’:


I think of the postmodern attitude as that of a man who loves a very cultivated woman and knows that he cannot say to her ‘I love you madly’, because he knows that she knows (and that she knows he knows) that these words have already been written by Barbara Cartland. Still, there is a solution. He can say ‘As Barbara Cartland would put it, I love you madly’ (Eco, 1994: 67).


In assigning a historical role to Eco’s work on semiotics and in placing his novels within the postmodern ‘canon’, the problem of really getting at what Eco expressed in his work becomes more apparent. In his death we can now only say ‘As Umberto Eco would put it…’. The real problem in hearing the critical voices of the past is that like the light that reaches from the stars, we only get to hear what they have already said before (and some time ago). Eco foregrounds this problem in a lecture he gave at the Freie Universität Berlin in 1998. Remarking on the then only recent rise in discourse around visual culture, he reminds his audience that the real critical interest is always moving one step (if not twenty steps) ahead:


…during the last decade, mass media discovered that we are entering a civilization of images. It was not a shocking discovery, because this phenomenon was discussed by sociologist and semioticians some forty years ago – think for instance of McLuhan. The interesting problem is rather that our societies, after the diffusion of the computer, are returning to an alphabetic stage, that is, to the Gutenberg galaxy. If the TV screen has been offering us more images than written words, a computer screen is today a tool that can be used only by literate people, since it contains words, words, words. The real question is the one about the future and the quality of such a new literary. […] Mass media, however, cannot report this because people would not believe it. People have had to face too many difficulties in order to finally accept the idea that we live in a civilization of images; the public can no longer renounce what had now become a cliché due to the great effort by which it was attained. […] Mass media can report the news of a study of a certain particle in a specific laboratory, but they cannot offer a suitable interpretation of that event. In the area of facts, mass media report what is happening now, but in the area of interpretation, they can only say what was already expected twenty years ago. […] Culture, knowledge, and theories generated by the university find their proper place within this gap of twenty years. What the university studies today is what the media will incorporate into their agenda, into their system of accepted assumptions, twenty years from now. […] I believe that students still come into our lecture halls because they realize that there is something being discussed which mass media have not yet encountered. When mass media eventually get around to reporting it, the university will already be discussing something else. (Eco, 1998: 34-35).


It will be interesting to see how Eco’s legacy takes hold. Will we continue to want to read him, knowing he himself will no longer be adding to the text; that he cannot be taking part in a discussion that will emerge in the mainstream only some twenty years later? Perhaps it is the performance of writers/thinkers such as Eco that we want, rather than what they actually perform or bestow upon us. Today, as much as we might remember his formal role as a theorist and writer, we must equally acknowledge we are left with the roll of his complex, postmodern writing, informed as it was by an unusual erudition of both contemporary and historical acumen. If nothing else, his writings allowed for the performance of theory, or least provided its critical narrative. Time will tell what role he plays, if any, in how we continue to read our culture(s) and its texts. What will not change, however, is that Eco’s writings are a rare example of popular complexity, and will be richly missed. As he said himself:


I was always defined as too erudite and philosophical, too difficult … Then I wrote a novel that is not erudite at all, that is written in plain language, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (2004), and among my novels it is the one that has sold the least. So probably I am writing for masochists. (Eco cited in the obituary for The Telegraph)




Sunil Manghani is Reader in Critical and Cultural Theory at the Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton (UK).






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